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Now that summer is right around the corner you might be thinking about getting outside and camping. It’s actually a great idea, since studies have shown that nature makes us happier, and that being among vegetation can help you live longer.
But if you’ve never gone into the wilderness before, you might need a camping packing list. That’s why we asked experts for some tips and gear advice to make your first time out as fun and safe as possible.
“The pandemic and lockdowns sparked a massive spike in outdoor recreation, and more people than ever are getting outside,” says Backcountry gearhead Rob Lindsen. “It’s great to see people getting to experience so many new, fun outdoor activities, but it is important for new outdoor users to learn proper outdoor etiquette and principles, like Leave No Trace.”
Leave No Trace is an easy set of seven principles to follow when you venture into nature so you can help minimize your impact. They include planning, traveling on durable surfaces, proper disposal of waste, leaving what you find, respecting wildlife, being considerate of others and minimizing campfire impacts. “Don’t make a campfire unless you’re 110% comfortable and sure it’s safe (and legal) to do so, and never leave a fire unattended until it’s completely put out,” Lindsen says. “Too many forest fires get started by careless campers!”
Dennis A. Vásquez, bureau chief of field operations at New Mexico State Parks, says planning is key when camping. “Do some online research on the area where you are going camping,” he says. “Be aware of forecasted rain, extreme temperatures and other weather conditions. Prepare accordingly.”
Campspot ambassador Kendra Clapp Olguín, who lives in an Airstream with her partner and fellow Campspot ambassador, Tyler D. Way, says actually figuring out where you’re going to camp is one of the most important parts of planning. “Finding a campground or campsite can be a daunting process, so I always recommend that first-time campers turn to Campspot,” says Olguín. “Further, a great way to introduce yourself to camping is to go with friends who have camped before.” Other than Campspot, reservation sites such as ReserveAmerica, Dyrt and Recreation.gov are extremely helpful when looking for a place to camp. You can search by location and browse different campgrounds with varying amenities so you can find a perfect camping experience. “It is strongly advised to make campsite reservations in advance, when that option is available,” says Vásquez. “A less popular, lesser crowded area might be a good introductory experience.”
When it comes to gear, you’ll need a few camping necessities like a tent and sleeping bag, but Olguín encourages new campers not to go wild buying a long list of camping items. “For your first trip, keep the camping equipment essential,” she says. “You’ll learn from experience what equipment and items work best for your style of camping.” Vásquez echoes this too. “It’s not necessary to buy the fanciest or most expensive equipment,” he says. “Start with basic, solid, modestly priced equipment. If you get hooked on camping, you can upgrade as you go along.” REI and Backcountry have brands that fit into this category with REI Co-op and Stoic, both of which have quality gear that’s typically cheaper than other big brands.
Below, we’ve followed our experts’ advice and put together a camping checklist for your next trip to the woods. We also have advice on expert-recommended hiking gear, backcountry camping and hiking boots for all your summer adventures.
Camping tents and chairs
“Our in-house brand, Stoic, makes a ton of great gear that’s an awesome value for both beginners and experienced campers alike,” says Lindsen. The Madrone 4 is a three-season tent, which means it’s built for everything but winter camping. Setup is easy, and it comes with two vestibules so you can stash your gear right outside of the tent and it’ll still be protected from the weather.
“Bring a comfy camp chair; it’s a must-have for roasting s’mores by a fire, and great for napping in the sun during the day,” says Lindsen. This chair from Amazon is simple, with tons of cushioning and built-in beverage-cooler pouches.
This chair is Olguín’s go-to for chilling at the campsite. “Inexpensive, oversized camping chairs …. allow you to sit with your legs criss-cross comfortably,” she says.
Sleeping bags, blankets and pads
A sleeping bag that keeps you warm at night is essential, so make sure to research how cold it will get at night. Sleeping bags have temperature ratings, but most of the time those numbers are lower-limit comfort ratings. That means if you have a 20-degree bag, it definitely doesn’t mean you’ll be snuggly and warm on a 20-degree night. In fact, you’ll probably be quite cold. This Kelty bag’s lower limit is 21 degrees and its comfort rating is 32 degrees, meaning it should keep you warm and comfy on most nights from late spring into early fall, depending on the climate.
If you’re planning on summer camping, this cooler bag from L.L.Bean will do the trick. Plus, its flannel-lined build is more comfortable than the polyester you typically find in warmer bags.
If you’re camping with your partner and don’t want to sleep in separate bags, this double bag is the perfect solution. Built with two hoods equipped with pillow pockets, dual two-way zippers and an interior stash pocket, you and your camping buddy will stay cozy and snuggly all night long.
If summer camping gets too hot, you might want to consider just using a blanket instead of a full-on sleeping bag. This puffy blanket from Rumpl is perfect for warm-weather camping, or you can bring it on colder trips to bundle up when you’re relaxing around the fire at night. Check out our review of Rumpl here.
Olguín loves to bring this gorgeous Pendleton wool blanket with her camping to keep her warm by the fire. “Wool is naturally fire-resistant, so we feel safe using these blankets around the campfire,” she says.
“Don’t skip bringing a sleeping pad either; a bad night’s sleep can quickly ruin any camping trip,” says Lindsen. This option from Therm-a-Rest is 3 inches thick to ensure comfort all night long.
This pad self-inflates so you won’t be sitting there blowing up your pad for 20 minutes. Plus, it’s 1.75 inches thick and insulated to help keep you warm on colder nights.
“A huge part of camping is cooking, and depending on how you view it … it can be a bit of a headache planning out meals, bringing not only all of the ingredients but also the equipment to cook it. It adds up,” says Olguín. “One tip I have for first-time campers is to eat out at a local restaurant or café a few times throughout your trip so you’re not inundated with meal prep and execution.” For the days you are cooking at your site, you’ll at least need a camp stove, some gas and utensils to get by.
Our editors love this stove, as its two large burners were enough to cook for seven people on a weeklong camping trip. It’s equipped with an auto-ignition, has a heat output of 20,000 British thermal units (Btu) per burner and folds down with a locking lid for easy transport.
This cheaper stove from Coleman is a lighter option, and has wind-blocking panels so you won’t have to constantly worry about the breeze blowing out your flame.
If you’re cooking on your trip, you’ll need to stock up on propane fuel. Plus, if you buy a gas lantern you’ll need to bring along even more canisters, which is why we like this two-pack so you’ll have one for your lantern and one for your stove. Each canister can give you approximately one hour of cooking on high with a two burner stove, depending on the stove, so make sure to buy enough for your whole trip.
You probably can’t bring your whole home coffee setup, but the Aeropress is a fantastic option to get your daily caffeine fix out in the woods. Recommended by Olguín, it’s super light and packable, simple to use and easy to clean up.
While you can go all out and buy a fancy cooler that can keep your food ice cold for over a week, this cheaper cooler will easily do the job for a weekend trip.
You can easily bring the pots and pans from your kitchen, but if you want to cook over the campfire or just want a more outdoorsy feel to your cooking, a cast-iron skillet is a must.
Camping lanterns and headlamps
Probably the most classic camping lantern out there, this propane-fueled option from Coleman gets surprisingly bright at up to 1,000 lumens. One 16.4-ounce propane cylinder will fuel this lantern on high for up to 7.5 hours, so your campsite can stay illuminated deep into the night.
This lantern is cheaper and more portable, and it takes AAA batteries instead of propane. It’s a nifty lantern if you just need to illuminate a picnic table for cards or the inside of your tent.
“You can get by using your phone’s light or a flashlight, but a headlamp will make your life a lot easier,” says Lindsen. “I like the Petzl Actik Core, as it can be easily charged with a Micro USB cable but also works with AAAs.”
There’s nothing like swinging among the trees in a hammock. This one from Kammok is super packable and easy to set up — just be sure to snag a suspension system so you can hang and relax in the woods.
To keep your fire going, you’ll have to add and maneuver logs over the flames, which is much easier with a pair of tongs, according to Olguín. “I don’t know why, but it took us too long to get firewood tongs,” she says. “Much safer and easier than trying to pick up logs with other logs. These fold down nice and small too.”
Starting a fire can be hard, but luckily fire starters like these from Fatwood make it a breeze. “They claim to be the easiest to use all-natural fire starter, and I would agree,” Olguín says. “I also like that they blend into the campfire, unlike other fire starters.”
Having a fleece or jacket is nice to have for when the temperatures dip at night. Olguín absolutely loves this pullover from Patagonia: “When I die, I’ll get buried in this for eternal comfort.”
If an unexpected rain storm passes through, you don’t want to get caught and get soaked. This lightweight jacket from Patagonia will keep you protected from even torrential downpours.
You won’t have fond memories of your camping trip if you come back burnt to a crisp. Avoid sunburns with this sunscreen, which was our pick for best sunscreen of 2021.
Nothing ruins a camping trip like dozens of bug bites, so stay protected with this bug spray, which was our pick for best DEET bug spray of 2021.